H.C.DISS Lecture to Old Barrovians' Association dated 24 th February 1928

Lecture to Old Barrovians' Association dated 24 th February 1928

Cecil gave many lectures on Timekeeping and on Gemstones. This one is unusual in that it was reported very fully in the "North Western Daily Mail" both the leaflet advertising the talk and the newspaper cutting are in the album.


The Leaflet .

Old Barrovians' Association (With the cooperation of the Old Girls Club).

Lecture on 'Time through the Ages' (illustrated by Slides and Film,

By H.C. Diss Esq., (Fellow of the British Horological Institute).

In the King's Hall on Friday 24th February 1928 at 8p.m.

Mr H.C. Diss needs no introduction to Barrow. He had the honour of giving the very first lecture delivered under the auspices of the Association. It will be a pleasure to hear him handle in his inimitable style, this new lecture on a subject of which he is an acknowledged master.

Mr Diss has a powerful voice, an excellent delivery, a rare fund of humour, and an intimate knowledge of his subject.

The British Horological Institute of which Sir Frank Dyson LL.D.,F.R.S.,F.B.H.I., is President his year, was founded in 1858 to further the science of Horology.

The Lecture, which will not be technical, will deal in a comprehensive manner with a fascinating subject.

What is time? The different kinds of Time -- The difficulties experienced by our ancestors in making the Calendar keep pace with the Seasons -- The timekeeper of prehistoric man -- The romantic solution of the difficulties of the early sea-captains in solving the problems of navigation, leading through the various developments of the subject up to our present electric age.

Admission Nine pence

Tickets may be obtained at the door, at the school, or from Messrs. Spencer,

Stationers and Booksellers, Dalton road

Time Through the Ages

Interesting Lecture at Barrow

(North Western Daily Mail)

Ancient and Modern Methods     

An interesting, instructive and entertaining lecture on "Time through the Ages", illustrated by slides and film, was delivered by H.C. Diss Esq., Fellow of the British Horological Institute in the King's Hall on Friday evening, under the auspices of The Old Barrovians' Association, to a large and appreciative audience.

The lecturers stated that astronomers thousands of years ago had a considerable knowledge of the heavens, and it was estimated to be nearly 6,000 years since the day was first divided into 24 parts or hours.

The sub-division of the hour into 60 minutes was at least 1,700 years old. No doubt this division of the hours into 60 parts and later the minute in 60 secs was chosen because no smaller number was divisible by so many other numbers.

There are, he said, three recognised kinds of time, viz., Sidereal time, Solar time and Mean time. Sidereal time, on account of its perfect uniformity, has been adopted by astronomers as their standard for measuring time. (Astronomers reckon from noon and count the hours continually from1 to 20)

This uniformity really staggers the imagination for it is known from calculations of the eclipses that one revolution of the earth in relation to a fixed star is made in exactly the same time now as 2,100 years ago, at least within a fraction of a second, the Astronomer Royal stating recently that the earth is slowing a thousandth of a second every 100 years, thought to be owing to the friction of the tides.

One would naturally think that such a standard would be good enough for everybody and all time. But a Siderial Day is shorter by nearly four minutes than a day calculated from the sun and we are dependant on the sun for our seasons, it is necessary in order that the year may accord with the seasons to disregard Siderial time in favour of Solar time.

Greenwich Mean Time

Even a solar day is not constant, so 365 solar days are, we might say, pooled and divided into 365 equal days, thus giving us mean time, and as we take the meridian which passes through Greenwich as our standard we get that well-known expression Greenwich Mean Time. From the standard mean time clock at Greenwich are transmitted the six dots so familiar to wireless listeners.

The earth takes a little more than a year to complete its orbit round the sun, and by not making proper allowance for this the ancients got into an awful muddle with the calendar. Even in England as late as 1752 there was an error of 11 days, which were omitted, and the beginning of the civil year altered from March 25th to January 1st. By Act of Parliament the day after September 2nd was called September 14th. Just as the introduction of summer time was opposed, so did many oppose this act, saying that they were being robbed of 11 days. Those members who supported the Bill were pelted with mud and stones when they appeared in the London streets.

Prehistoric Timekeepers

Prehistoric Timekeepers are largely a matter of conjecture, but very probably it was noticed that the shadow cast by a stick or stone travelled along the same path each day, and thus the sundial was born. The first recorded sun dial is mentioned in the Bible, the date being placed at the 8th Century B.C. From remotest times even to the present day sundials have been used the world over.

Then followed the water clock or Clepsydrae, which means to steal water. The very earliest forms were probably very crude, probably a shell with a hole pierced in the bottom which allowed the water to slowly drip out. Or an empty shell was floated in a pond and allowed to slowly fill. One imaginative writer pictures such a timekeeper as a large bowl tended by a slave whose duty it was to sound a huge gong each time the bowl filled, thus informing those within hearing of the passage of time. Even to this day a pierced cocoanut shell floating in a bowl of water is used for timekeeping on Malay boats. The Roman Emperor Pompey introduced into the Roman Law Courts water clocks for the very mercival task of limiting speeches. Doing this noble work one might well ask why are they not so employed to this day? Water clocks were in general use in private dwelling houses during Caesar's time, and later many very intricate timekeepers were so made. Another early form of timekeeper is the sandglass with which we are all familiar. There invention is ascribed to a monk at the end of the 8th century when the art of glass blowing was revived. The nautical term knots as a measure of distance is associated with the sand glass. This arose from the fact that a ship's speed was formerly judged by the number of knots on the log line, which slipped through the sailor's hands during 28 second, timed with a sand glass. In the House of Commons at the present time a sand glass is used to mark certain intervals, and in many old churches the stand for the sand glass invariably used by the earlier preachers can still be seen.

Some attribute the invention of the first clock driven by a weight and with an escapement to regulate the wheels running down, to a monk who lived in the 10th century. However it was not until many years later that large public clocks became comparatively common. Before dials were invented mechanical figures or Jacks as they were called, were used to strike the hours. There is a collection of these Jacks at the Church of St. Mary Steps, Exeter.

About 1370 King Charles V of France had a large turret clock erected in Paris, which took eight years to complete. The hours were struck on a bell. It was on this bell 202 years later that the signal for the massacre of St Bartholomew was given. The four o'clock hour on this turret clock was originally shown in roman numerals, but the King, wishing to find some fault, said they should be four strokes. The clockmaker protested but the King replied, "I am never wrong, have it altered". This became a custom, which is followed to this day. In 1368 Edward 111 granted a safe conduct pass to three Dutchmen to start clock manufacture in England. Up to then practically all clocks had been confined to monasteries.

The Clock making Industry              

From 1650 to 1750 London was the centre of clock making industry, in the same way that Sheffield is the centre of the cutlery industry. At this time clockmakers were lucky to be associated with clever and skilful cabinetmakers, and clocks of this period were excellent, due to the pride of the workman, and the time he would devote to the task and the high prices that were willingly paid for fine craftsmanship. The quality of the work was also greatly influenced by the power of the Clockmakers' Company, who had power granted to them by charter to seize and destroy poor work. They exercised this power and soon ruined an inferior workman. With the withdrawal of these powers from the guild, inferior work got on the market. This, perhaps, was only natural ?as up to then only the wealthy could afford clocks.

Between 1690 and 1790 hardly any long case clocks were made without calendar circles. The calendar was thought more important than the minute hand, owing, no doubt, to the public having no printed calendars or newspapers to which to refer.

Portable Clocks          To Peter Hele, born in Nuremberg in 1489 we owe the introduction of portable clocks. This meant a great advance in horology for he invented the tightly-coiled ribbon of steel called the mainspring. Early clocks were not portable on account of the size and clumsy construction and because they were driven by weights which needed room in which to fall. Although portable timekeepers were not in general use until many years later, table clocks became more or less common with the wealthy. Shortly after Hele's death in 1542 a portable timekeeper was produced based on his earlier work which on account of its oval shape and place oe of origin, became known as the Nuremberg egg. This was really the first watch and was five or six inches high and made entirely of iron. From this egg was hatched the ship's chronometer some two centuries later.

The Nuremberg egg had no glass and one hand only, the hour hand. Its lack of accuracy is hardly surprising, as there were no gear cutting machines in those days, all work being done by hand. The need of a spring to assist the balance in controlling the escapement was felt, and pig's stiff bristles were first used for this purpose. The modern hairspring is, of course, a very fine-coiled strip of steel, very similar to a mainspring but very much finer. To Dr. Hooke, an Englishman, is due the credit of inventing the hairspring in 1665, and he made the first gear-cutting machine in 1670.

The Ship's Chronometer      

The lecturer then dealt with the invention of the ship's chronometer, and outlined the difficulties, which beset the great sea captains and navigators before its advent. In 1714 the British Government offered £20,000 to the discoverer of a method of determining longititude within half a degree, the instrument to be tested on a voyage to the West Indies. During the 50 years before the reward was won, it became popularly thought impossible to find a means of ascertaining longitude. However, in 1764 a Yorkshire man, John Harrison, made, entirely unaided, a chronometer which permanently solved the problem which had baffled Sir Isaac Newton and, in fact, the best brains of the world. Harrison's accurate timekeeper must be judged by the enormous benefits it conferred not only on seamen but indirectly on the whole world. It is not too much to say that the British Empire and our naval greatness are due in no small measure to the fact that an Englishman, John Harrison, solved the gravest problem that ever confronted navigators.

English Watches     

It is not thought that watches were worn in Shakespeare's time. Though in "As you like it " occurs the sentence, "He drew a dial from his poke", it probably referred to a pocket sundial. It was about 100 years after the mainspring was invented that watches became at all common. It is thought that Oliver Cromwell was one of the first to wear a pocket watch. The bloods of the day preferred to display theirs hanging from their clothes. The puritans, hating display, hid theirs in their pockets. Watch glasses were not used until about 1610 until about 1685. A watch with a seconds hand is referred to in 1707 and described as a physician's pulse watch. During the 18th century large rewards were offered for watches lost. Nearly every advertisement stated the reward would be paid and no questions asked, so pick pocketing was profitable in those days.

Watch making in Coventry dates from 1727. During the war firms were on war work, making aircraft instruments, speedometers, time fuses etc. English ships' chronometers are still the finest in the world; also English watches and clocks are second to none where price is not the main consideration.

The earliest watches had verge escapements, and then followed the cylinder escapement, which is still used in some cheap watches. But it is Mudge's lever escapement, which has made the wonderful timekeeping of modern watches possible.

In giving a brief outline of the modern watch and modern production, he described the Buren factory, situated about six miles from Berne in Switzerland. This factory is entirely British owned by Williamsons of Farringdon road, London.

The balance of a watch he explained performs about 200 million revolutions a year, day and night, without rest, a marvellous performance for any piece of machinery, as watches get very little lubrication.

Big Ben     

I would like to make allusion to Big Ben, the world's most famous clock, which booms out the hours to wireless listeners. In1834 the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire, and it was decided to rebuild in 1835, provision being made for a clock tower in the design chosen. The firms tendering for the clock had to guarantee timekeeping, the condition being that the first stroke of every hour on the bell should be accurate to one second. Big Ben easily fulfils this condition, its present rate being about a tenth of a second a day. The mechanism weighs about 15 tons. It has a zinc and steel compensation pendulum. The clock used to be wound by hand taking two men six hours. Now the striking weights are raised by electricity in 45 minutes. The dials are 23 feet in diameter, and the hands weigh about two tons. It is really marvellous to think they are driven round the dial to an error of only a tenth of a second a day. The hour bell weighs 13 1/2 tons and is slightly cracked. Automatic signals are received twice a day from Greenwich for checking purposes.

Electric Horology     

After showing numerous slides and an excellent film, Mr Diss concluded with a brief reference to horology, stating that the mysterious force of magnetism is the fundamental principal of all electric clocks. The first electric clock was made in 1840, and today electric clocks are nearing perfection. In fact, some predict that in years to come the present intricate mechanism of timekeepers will be dispensed with, watch hands being propelled by a small battery carried in the pocket or even by wireless impulses from some wireless time station. Electric timekeepers have a great future before them, and I read that a president of the Clockmakers' Company predicts that in the future time will be laid on to new houses like gas, water, and rates. (Laughter and Applause)

The lecturer enhanced his lecture by relating some amusing incidents and stories.